AU at 20: should Africa’s lead nations take on more responsibility?

As the African Union (AU) celebrates its 20th anniversary, key questions about the role of leading members remain unresolved. Particularly important is whether big African states – those with economic and political clout – should be empowered to better drive agendas for enhanced governance, peace and stability. As was clear during the Organisation of African Unity transformation into the AU, dynamic and visionary leadership from a few influential states can advance reform and progress in the organisation and Africa.

The conversation about the role of the big states is not new. The Peace and Security Council (PSC) has a two-track composition, with five members serving for three years and 10 for two based on regional representation. Some founding members saw this as institutionalising the role of states with the capacity to lead the continent while ensuring fair rotation to allow all countries to sit on the PSC.

To date, however, only Nigeria has been able to keep its lead nation status, occupying a semi-permanent seat on the council since its founding in 2004. Following North Africa’s recent request for an additional PSC seat, policy reflections on Africa’s lead states and the council, and the number of lingering questions about the latter’s composition, have increased. The debate at the AU Summit in February 2023 on PSC expanded membership is, thus, expected to consider it keenly.

The lead-state debate

Allowing lead nations to serve in enhanced capacity in the interests of the continent was a consideration in establishing the PSC. The details of how the 15-member council would be constituted were thrashed out in various meetings and discussions in Maputo in 2003, ahead of the adoption of the PSC Protocol in 2004.

Visionary leadership from a few influential states can advance reform and progress in AU and Africa

It was decided to adopt a two-track approach. The rotation of seats, it was argued, would prevent the ills of permanent membership as is the case with the UN Security Council (UNSC). There, none of the five permanent members can be removed by the General Assembly, even if the context of their appointment were to change significantly. The PSC is different, with rotations every two or three years. The interface between incoming and existing members would be enough to maintain adequate institutional memory for the council to function.

A decision was made that countries that fulfil all PSC membership criteria would serve the three-year term, renewable if they uphold the requirements, according to a former ambassador present at these debates. The criteria are set out in Article 5(2) of the PSC Protocol. These include upholding AU principles and respecting constitutional governance and the rule of law.

Members should also commit to participating in conflict resolution, peacemaking and peacebuilding, and be willing to contribute particularly to regional peacemaking efforts. They should be able to shoulder the responsibility of PSC membership, including having fully staffed embassies in Addis Ababa and New York. Finally, they must be fully paid AU members and also contribute to the AU Peace Fund.

PSC composition quandary

This two-track model, as has been the case with other founding ideals of the AU, has not been fully implemented due to the need for compromise among member states to drive change. Without certain concessions, crucial reforms would never see the light. Since the inception of the council, only West Africa has stuck to this principle, with Nigeria having served on the PSC for 18 years.

States remain divided over whether North Africa should have an additional seat on the council

Major lead nations in other regions have, however, rotated onto and off the council for various reasons. South Africa did not push for continuous membership. According to the former ambassador, this was due to the country’s awareness of being the newest ‘kid on the block’ and not wanting to be seen to flex its muscles. 

North Africa ultimately also remained with two seats, compared to West Africa’s four and three seats each for the southern, eastern and central regions. This was because at the advent of the PSC Protocol, only two of the six northern members, namely Algeria and Libya, had adopted it. Mauritania, Tunisia and Egypt had not yet ratified it and Morocco was not a member then. This was intended to be temporary. Today all six north African countries are member states of the AU and have ratified the protocol, hence North Africa’s ongoing push to claim additional representation.

States remain divided over whether North Africa should have the seat, with another rotating seat added to ensure uneven member numbers, or whether West Africa should give a seat to North Africa. The question pondered is whether the added seat would enhance the role of the region’s most capable state or allow another leader to assume more responsibility through council membership.

A decision was made during the July 2022 biannual meeting of the AU Executive Council of foreign ministers that a report on this be submitted to the next meeting in February 2023.

The way forward

Since inception, the AU has launched measures to ensure dynamic leadership takes the continent forward, including the notion that a small group of willing and able states should lead initiatives. These include the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the African Peer Review Mechanism and the now-defunct African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis. This approach was largely successful, even though financing a small group of states proved unsustainable.

Some leaders take on ‘champion’ positions with gusto, investing time and energy, but others do not

In another attempt to ensure certain interventions move ahead through dynamic leadership, the AU has appointed ‘champions’ to implement its ideals. These individuals have more time to follow through on decisions than they would as AU chairpersons, a one-year tenure. Currently, there are 16 champions spearheading issues such as the COVID-19 response, climate change, the fight against violent extremism and UNSC reform.

Experience has shown that some heads of state take on these positions with gusto and invest much time and energy, while others do not. Going forward, it will be crucial for lead nations to sustain momentum when they launch interventions. In addition, electees to the PSC, especially three-year members, should adhere strictly to the criteria for membership in the PSC Protocol.

As the AU begins its third decade, decisions on the role of big states will be shaped by changes in the organisation and continental dynamics. Strong leadership will be key to ensuring Africa’s structures remain efficient and equitable.

Leading states with the capacity to drive change should step forward to take the lead when crucial issues arise, whether as semi-permanent members of the PSC, AU champions or AU chairpersons. The criteria for this role include the financial and human-resource capacity to sustain engagement and ensure implementation through building consensus.

Image: African Union

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